12/03/2021 - (Source © lid.ch) - Many root vegetables that were once cultivated in Switzerland have fallen into oblivion in the course of mechanization. However, seed expert Robert Zollinger is convinced that oat roots, rapunzel or slug burdock have many exciting aromas, colors and shapes ready to be rediscovered.
By David Eppenberger
Many know the common evening primrose from train journeys because the plant with the large yellow flowers likes to grow in the gravel along the tracks. That is why it is also known as the «railway plant». Only die-hard fans of wild vegetables know that, contrary to popular belief, they are not poisonous, but on the contrary edible and healthy. In the 18th century it was popular in cottage gardens because of its fleshy taproot. If this is slightly dampened, it develops a white-reddish color pattern, which is why it is also referred to as "ham root" in horticultural literature. Hardly anyone uses them in the kitchen these days. Similarly, other traditional root vegetables have been forgotten. Or who knows burdock, rapunzel, tuberous vetchling, common donkey thistle, Spanish golden thistle or oat root? They are all root vegetables that were once cultivated in Switzerland but are no longer found in today's range of vegetables.
The continuing loss of varieties and species in agriculture is a fact. "Six apple varieties make up 80 percent of the cultivated area in Switzerland today," explains Christina Kägi from the Federal Office for Agriculture. In Switzerland, however, there are more than 3,000 other types of fruit that no longer meet today's market requirements, but are still of great value. As one of the coordinators of the National Action Plan for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture ( NAP-PGREL ), Christina Kägi works to ensure that this genetic and culinary treasure is not lost. Since 1999, more than 600 projects to preserve the diversity of cultivated plants in Switzerland have been carried out within this framework. In the future, breeding should benefit from the seeds stored in the National Gene Bank in Changins, among other places. Ancient landrace crops contain genetic material, such as black rust resistance in barley, that can be repurposed for use in modern new breeds. So far, most of the projects have focused primarily on the preservation of seeds from old grain, vegetable or fruit varieties. "We looked at what was available and made sure that it wouldn't get lost," explains Christina Kägi. In the last five years, however, more projects have been carried out with the aim of breeding rare agricultural crops and making them fit for cultivation again. Especially when it comes to vegetables, there are many types that are not suitable for mechanization, but would still stand out from the culinary standard.
Christina Kägi from the Federal Office for Agriculture and Robert Zollinger from Hortiplus want to bring traditional roots back into gardens and kitchens. (ep)
Robert Zollinger has been committed to the preservation of traditional cultivated plants his entire professional life. Together with his wife, he once built up the organic seed nursery Zollinger in Les Evouettes, which he handed over to his sons four years ago. He has already carried out several sighting and conservation projects as part of NAP-PGREL. In the current project with the roots of tradition, he and his company Hortiplus Zollinger grew 65 different varieties of seven species this year on the outskirts of Zurich (see box). The FOAG supported the project financially, and the city of Zurich made the land available in the Grünholzli community garden. Although praised in older gardening literature, the root vegetables examined have now disappeared from the gardeners' consciousness, explains Robert Zollinger. There are also understandable reasons for this: The ancient types of vegetables such as Rapunzel, Bützchen or oat root are the opposite of today's uniform carrot, trimmed for mechanized cultivation, which has to meet the strict quality requirements of the buyer. The traditional roots, on the other hand, grow very differentlyme: many-legged, thick or thin, long or short. In large-scale professional vegetable growing, their cultivation is far too complex and therefore uneconomical. In the strictly scheduled vegetable market, nobody has time to dig meters deep for roots, which may then hardly yield anything. However, Robert Zollinger sees a revival of the kitchen garden tradition and a growing interest in tasty types of vegetables. «The roots have exciting aromas, colors and shapes, which could not only be interesting for an upscale gourmet kitchen.»
Robert Zollinger with an evening primrose, which flowered in the first year and accordingly sparsely rooted. (ep)
Obtaining usable seeds as a challenge
However, it was difficult to find enough and suitable seeds of the seven root types planned for the screening, explains seed expert Robert Zollinger. On the one hand, the seeds, some of which were only dust-sized, came from private individuals who followed the calls in magazines. On the other hand, they were stored in the National Gene Bank in Changins. In addition, Robert Zollinger occasionally looks for candidates on his own at possible locations. For example, he knew from the literature that in the Leuk region tuber peas still grow along grain fields. However, when he arrived on site a few years ago on a reconnaissance tour, the field had already been harvested. But he still found what he was looking for, because the wild boars had dug up the ground for the traffic tickets. Zollinger smiles: "Wild boars know what's good".
Cooked evening primrose roots could become a topic again in high-end gastronomy. (ep)
However, the availability of seed alone does not mean that it is suitable for cultivation. "It was easy to see that the varieties were neglected in terms of breeding," he explains. For example, the seeds often grow unevenly. The first thing to do with these cultivation trials is to use the plants that have grown to assess which varieties are most suitable for propagation. Agronomic and culinary criteria are particularly important. If the Grünholzli flowers yellow and violet in the first year, then that is nice to look at for the layperson. For grower Zollinger, however, it is clear that the usually biennial root vegetables should only flower in the second year, because the roots form mainly in the first year. Such varieties that flower in the first year are therefore rated negatively in the selection. In the end, only those varieties that were able to assert themselves in the complex screening and assessment process are propagated. At the end of the day, the seed should be commercially available in varieties that are suitable for everyday use. Because the goal remains that the gnarled root vegetables find their way back into the kitchen gardens and kitchens. Zollinger is confident here: "The first tastings with top chefs have already been very successful."
The seven traditional root vegetables seen in the project:
Bützchen, Burdock, Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa): All parts of the plant are edible. The roots taste bittersweet when cooked, similar to artichokes. In salads, soups or wok dishes. Similar in use to black salsify. Will in Japan still grown today as a delicacy. Root has an antibacterial effect and promotes wound healing, for example in diseased skin. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Rapunzel, Rapunzel bellflower (Campanula rapunculus): 30 to 100 cm high, perennial herbaceous plant. Fleshy, thickened and tasty root. Preparation like celery or beetroot. Raw root slices together with leaves decorated with flowers in a salad. Roots and leaves contain essential valerian oil, which has a calming effect on the stomach and promotes sleep. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Tuberous vetchling (Lathyrus tuberosus): Flowers, young shoots, flower buds and roots (tubers) are (cooked) edible. In the past, perfume was made from the flowers. The seeds are poisonous and lead to symptoms of poisoning after consumption. Contain minerals, vitamins and valuable amino acids. Form nodules that can be boiled like potatoes. Roots up to 70 cm deep and forms runners with tubers. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Ham root, common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis): Biennial herbaceous plant up to 2 meters high. Young leaves can be used for salads and the flowers for decoration. When cooked, the taste is somewhere between chard and spinach. Taproot is dug up in the fall in the first year and prepared like carrots. Overwinters as a rosette and flowers in the second year. Oil containing omega-6 fatty acids and linoleic acid is also obtained from capsules (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium): The root is edible when cooked. Biennial plant with spiny leaves forms a rosette in the first year and grows to a height of up to 3 meters in the second year. The taproot goes deep into the ground and is prepared like black salsify. Flower heads are comparable to artichoke hearts. Contains bitter substances, flavone glycosides and tannins. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Spanish golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus): root can be cooked as a vegetable and the young leaves can be used like spinach. The plant is also edible. Like other green leafy vegetables such as chard or spinach, they contain many vitamins for strengthening the immune system. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
Oat root (Tragopogon porrifolius) Use in the kitchen as a root vegetable, for example in soups, leaves also in salads. Taproots are up to 30 cm long. The herbaceous plant reaches a height of up to 120 cm. Contains insulin and is therefore very digestible for diabetics and also gluten-free. (Hortiplus Zollinger)
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